Friday, June 11, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

You don’t have to be a foodie to recognize that bread has formed a significant part of Lowcountry foodways for centuries. While conversations about this delicious heritage often focus on recipes and ingredients, an interesting but obscure chapter of local bread history requires a detour into the realm of economics. The marketing of bread in this community was once constrained by an ancient legal system that prescribed the weight, price, and quality of loaves. That legal framework endured here for more than a century and literally shaped the bread consumed by generations of Charlestonians.

For most of recorded history, bread has been one of the most basic—if not the most fundamental—part of the human diet. This tradition has declined somewhat in recent decades, however, as palates have changed, and awareness of gluten sensitivity has increased. Nevertheless, the enduring concept of “our daily bread” is baked into the philosophy of most religious traditions and is still very much a part of modern culture. A lot of ink has been spilled—both in print and online—in recent years about the recipes of heirloom breads of various cultures and nations, and about the construction of different ovens that have evolved to bake specific breads. A neglected part of this ongoing conversation, however, concerns the economic side of bread history. In many parts of the world, including Charleston, any discussion of the historic bread economy must address a long-dead phenomenon that once dominated the subject: the assize of bread.


The word “assize,” in this context, refers not to the bread’s physical dimensions, but rather to an investigation made in preparation for rendering a judgment. “Assize” came to the English language by way of the Old French word “assise,” meaning a “session” or “sitting,” which in turn was derived from a Latin verb describing several persons sitting together. This construction might seem arcane today, but it’s still lingering in our modern vocabulary. The expression “to size up the competition,” for example, doesn’t literally mean to measure an opponent’s height and girth, but rather to make a calculated visual assessment of an adversary; in other words, to assize or determine the prospect of future victory or defeat.

The most important assizes in Medieval and Early Modern England were the periodic sessions of criminal court proceedings held in the king’s name, or the “assizes of the king’s bench.” A colonial version of that legal tradition came to North America in the late seventeenth century, but so did another, less-remembered species of assize. Beginning as early as the twelfth century, civic officials in the various shires of England reviewed the wholesale price of flour on the local market and fixed the retail price of bread for the coming year. This practice, known as the assize of bread, continued in Britain and parts of the United States well into the nineteenth century. The practical details of this old tradition are somewhat convoluted, but they form a necessary background for understanding the general history of bread in South Carolina and in Charleston in particular.

At its heart, this is a classic story of both supply and demand and collective bargaining applied to a product long considered the most basic article of daily consumption. The purpose of the assize of bread was to strike a reasonable balance between the interests of both producers and consumers. Civic officials in the ancient English shire established a relationship between the price and weight of bread to ensure that bakers earned a reasonable profit for their labors while simultaneously enabling the poorest consumers to purchase bread for daily consumption. This dynamic was complicated by the relatively inflexible nature of the currency used in the distant past. Gold and silver coins once circulated in smaller quantities that made it more difficult to respond to variable commodity prices over time. The assize of bread intervened to reduce the effects of market volatility on the community by keeping retail prices constant while periodically adjusting the legal weight of loaves of bread.

When the wheat harvest was plentiful and the price of flour was low, for example, bakers received a reasonable, predetermined profit while consumers received a generous portion of bread for their money. When poor harvests increased the wholesale price of flour, however, the assize preserved the retail price of bread while specifying a reduction in the weight of each loaf. In theory, this prescribed fluctuation in the legal weight of bread ensured a consistent livelihood to the baker in good times and in bad, while simultaneously ensuring that bread remained affordable to the poorest in the community. In reality, however, both consumers and bakers complained that the practice treated them unfairly.

Under the assize laws, fluctuations in the price of flour required bakers to continually adjust the size and weight of their loaves. It would have been much easier for the bakers to produce loaves of consistent sizes and let the prices fluctuate, but the law precluded such convenience. On the other hand, regular fluctuation in the weight and size of bread provided unscrupulous bakers with a convenient cover for fraud. They could augment their profits by producing loaves slightly lighter than the law required, or replace some of the wholesome flour with inferior ingredients like chalk or powdered bones. In this state of retail detente, consumers were often wary of the value they received, and many bakers resented the limits placed on their profitability. The assize was a complex, time consuming, paternalistic tradition that hobbled the bread industry of several nations for many centuries before it was universally retired in the middle of the nineteenth century.[1]

In medieval England, when all markets were local and supplies were finite, this assize of bread was an annual event that might be adjusted during the year if market conditions changed radically. As the sphere of commerce grew larger over the centuries, thanks to improved roads and shipping networks, the traditional assize of bread became a monthly routine in England, in many European countries, and in the British colonies in North America. There was no legal constraint on the size, weight, or composition of bread loaves sold at retail during the first seventy years of the South Carolina colony, but the English settlers who came here in 1670 expected their daily bread to meet traditional standards of value for money. When the first fleet of Carolina ships was outfitting in London in 1669, for example, agents packed on board “one small beam & scale to weigh bread.”[2]

Practically nothing is known about the mundane business of retailing bread in early South Carolina, however, until the advent of the colony’s first newspaper in Charleston in 1732. From January of that year forward, the extant newspapers contain periodic news about the price of the most common provisions like beef, pork, peas, sugar, flour, and bread. Occasional notices and advertisements in the old newspapers also provide some insight into the business practices of bakers in the Carolina capital. In the spring of 1739, for example, veteran baker Daniel Bourget observed that “the price of bread has been very high for a long time.” To attract customers away from younger, newly-established rivals, Bourget boasted that he sold “3 lb. weight of bread for 2 s[hillings]. 6 d[enarii or pence],” which was apparently a great bargain at the time. Other bakers complained publicly about his tactics and noted that Bourget’s three-pound loaf was actually eight ounces lighter than advertised.[3]

In short, the traditional market practices that characterized the loaf bread business in Europe followed colonists to the shores of North America. The bread laws of Old England did not apply here because they were always crafted at the local level in response to specific market conditions. To promote fairness in the local bread trade, the provincial governments of Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere adopted assize laws modeled on English precedents. South Carolina lawmakers established the colony’s first bread law in the spring of 1750, and its preamble offers a useful summary of their motivation:

“Whereas, no Act of Assembly of this province hath hitherto been made and provided, for regulating the price and assize of bread, whereby little or no observance hath been made either of the due assize or reasonable price of bread made for sale within the same, and covetous and evil disposed persons, taking advantage thereof, have, for their own gain and lucre, deceived and oppressed his Majesty’s subjects, and more especially the poorer sort of people; for remedy whereof for the future, and that a plain and constant rule and method may henceforth be duly observed and kept, in the making and assizing the several sorts of bread made for sale within this province, and hereinafter mentioned. . . .”

The South Carolina General Assembly adopted a table articulating the relationship between the variable price of wheat flour and the corresponding minimum legal weight of various loaf breads made for the purposes of retail sale within the colony. Prices were expressed in the usual “current money of South Carolina,” which was a locally-determined fractional value of British sterling (12 pence or pennies or denarii equal 1 shilling; 20 shillings equal 1 pound), while the weight of the various loaves was measured according to the avoirdupois system of pounds, ounces, and drams. Although the price of flour and the corresponding bread weight fluctuated, the assize law fixed the prices of loaves baked in four sizes. In ascending order of price and weight, South Carolinians could purchase a seven pence half-penny loaf (£0.0.7 ½), a fifteen penny loaf (£0.1.3), a half-crown loaf (£0.2.6), or a crown loaf (£0.5.0, or ¼ of £1).

Like the English laws on which it was based, South Carolina’s assize of bread applied only to three specific varieties all made from wheat flour, described as white, wheaten, and household bread. Their white bread was much like the present commodity (minus the additives and preservatives), which uses wheat flour that has been refined to remove the bran and germ found within every grain of wheat. Wheaten or “brown” bread, in contrast, uses flour milled from the whole grains. Household bread uses coarser and less refined wheat flour leftover from the production of the two superior varieties. Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, white bread was always the most expensive type of bread because of the extra steps in the refining process. According to the table annexed to the assize law of 1750, loaves of household bread were always the heaviest, while wheaten loaves of the same price weighed 25% less, and loaves of white bread weighed half as much as the corresponding sizes of the household variety. Although white bread had a longer shelf life than brown bread, it was and is the least nutritious of the three varieties. For most of South Carolina’s recorded history, poor folks ate the most nutritious brown breads, while more affluent diners consumed the less nutritious but sweeter white bread.

Beginning in April 1750, the provincial Commissary General was required to investigate the current average price of flour in Charleston and use the aforementioned table to determine the required weight of the various bread loaves sold throughout South Carolina during the ensuing month. The commissary was obliged to publish monthly notices of the current loaf weights in the newspapers printed in Charleston. The purpose of this law, as in England, was to regulate the market of the most basic foodstuff by striking a balance between the interests of the producers and consumers. Every baker vending bread made from the various grades of wheat flour was required to “imprint” or brand their initials on each loaf, and also to “imprint” each loaf with its price, “whereby the said baker and price of such bread may be distinctly known.” Bakers were prohibited from adding to their bread “any mixture of any other grain than what shall be absolutely necessary for the well making or baking thereof.” The law empowered local magistrates, “in the day-time, to enter into any house, shop, stall, bake-house, ware-house, or out-house, of or belonging to any baker or seller of bread, there to search for, view, weigh, and try all or any of the bread mentioned in this Act.” Fines were imposed on bakers whose bread did not meet legal standards, and the government reserved the right to confiscate non-conforming bread and deliver it to the provincial Poor House in Charleston.[4] 

Although South Carolina’s bread law of 1750 used the price of flour in Charleston to determine the legal weight of loaf bread sold throughout the province, the business it regulated was essentially an urban phenomenon. The law applied to centers of trade like Charleston, Beaufort, Georgetown, Camden, Orangeburg, and other emerging settlements on the colony’s western frontier. The vast majority of the population lived on rural plantations and farms, however, where the inhabitants generally baked bread for their own consumption rather than for retail sale. Furthermore, the assize of bread applied only to loaves of traditional, English-style wheat bread. It did not regulate the creation or sale of vernacular goods baked with rice flour or cornmeal, and the law did not apply to items like muffins, specialty rolls, and pastries. Early South Carolinians enjoyed a wide variety of baked goods, of course, but the assize of bread represented an attempt to regulate the price of the most basic foodstuff available to all classes of people.

In March 1783, three months after the occupying British Army evacuated war-torn South Carolina, the newly re-established state legislature revived the 1750 assize of bread and declared it a perpetual law.[5] The colonial captial, Charles Town, became the state’s first incorporated city in August 1783, and the South Carolina General Assembly amended its charter six months later to empower the new City Council to regulate the monthly assize of bread within its corporate limits. [6] The Clerk of Council rather than the provincial Commissary General became responsible for gathering data about the price of flour and publishing regular notices of the legal weight of baked loaves. Over the next seventy-five years, the people of Charleston wrestled with the advantages and disadvantages of municipal bread regulation.

Charleston’s City Council responded to complaints and evolving market forces by revising the assize of bread on ten occasions. Most of these revisions concerned minor deviations from the 1750 law, so a brief review of the changes will illustrate the general trajectory. In April 1785, for example, the city government replaced the four traditional loaf sizes, borrowed from England, with new denominations rendered in South Carolina “sterling”: one penny loaf, two penny loaf, four penny loaf, and eight penny loaf.[7] In October 1786, the city empowered the Clerk of Council to calculate the assize of bread when the price of flour exceeded that expressed in the legal table of prices and weights.[8] In December 1787, City Council changed the marks to be imprinted on loaves of retail bread. Rather than marking each with its price and baker’s initials, white bread loaves of various sizes were henceforth branded with the number “1”; the number “2” on all wheaten loaves, and the number “3” on all household bread.

The city ordinance of 1787 also instituted changes that provide insight into the business side of the bread trade. Heretofore, the prices of various grades of wheat flour were calculated by “the hundred,” or “five-score pounds weight.” Beginning in January of 1788, however, the standard unit of measure became a barrel containing 196 pounds of flour. The revised ordinance obliged the Clerk of Council to survey the price of flour in Charleston “on the last Tuesday of every month, from the best information he can procure,” and submit the data to a body of city officials who would collectively assize or determine the average price. To promote transparency and confidence in the process, the city invited bakers, “if they shall think fit, [to] attend the sitting of the said assize.” Once the average price of flour had been determined, the bread ordinance of 1787 specified that every baker would earn a mark-up or profit of seventeen shillings and six pence (£0.17.6) on each barrel of flour weighing 196 pounds, which the city adjudged would produce 238 pounds of “well baked bread.” Based on the resulting price of flour, the Clerk of Council would use the approved table to determine and publish notice of the legal weight of loaf bread for the ensuing month. For reasons unknown, the 1787 law also temporarily restricted retail bread to just two sizes—four penny loaf and eight penny loaf.[9]

The revised bread ordinance of September 1792 established a new standard of four sizes, called the one penny loaf, two penny loaf, three-and-a-half penny loaf, and seven penny loaf. It also raised the profit allowed to the baker on each barrel of flour from £0.17.6 to £0.18.8, or four United States dollars.[10] A 1795 revision extended to the Clerk of Council the luxury of gathering data about the price of flour at any time “within the last week of every month.”[11] In contrast, the revised assize law of 1813 quadrupled his labors. Beginning in August of that year, the clerk was obliged to gather information about the price of flour “within the last day of every week” and, after consulting with a body of other city officials, determine and publish an assize of bread at the beginning of every week.[12]

During the later years of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, Charleston’s expanding population was steadily creeping northward across the city limit defined by Boundary (now Calhoun) Street and into the unincorporated area known as The Neck. The fact that customers residing on the Neck were not subject to the assize of bread inspired some city bakers to produce light loaves that did not meet legal standards. If a baker driving his horse-drawn bread cart through the streets of downtown Charleston saw a city official coming to inspect his loaves, he could trot uptown north of Boundary Street and dispose of his light bread without reprisal. By an act of the legislature in 1818, however, the state extended Charleston’s weekly assize of bread to the Neck, which the city formally annexed in 1850.[13]

The economic logic behind the assize of bread had been a subject of debate long before the practice came to South Carolina, and that conversation continued in Charleston during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Occasional letters to the editors printed in local newspaper bear witness to the frustrations of bakers and customers alike, and an anonymous essay printed in 1824 provides a cogent summary of the arguments against the assize law. In short, the assize was “a relic of the policy of an age of ignorance and superstition” that had no place in an increasingly industrialized society. It “presupposes a liability to fraud and deceit which experience contradicts,” and inhibits the beneficial operation of competition in a free market. Paris, New York, and Philadelphia had recently abandoned their assizes of bread, and it was time for Charleston to follow suit.[14] After months of local debate, City Council repealed its assize law in May 1826 and canceled the long-standing regulation of bread within the Palmetto City.[15]

But that’s not the end of the story. Like the villain in a good horror film, the assize of bread sprang back to life a decade later. In October 1837, Charleston’s City Council responded to a murmur of local complaints by reviving the bread ordinance of 1813 and re-instating the weekly assizes. The only modification concerned the denomination of the various loaves, which now sold for two cents, four cents, six-and-a-half cents, and twelve cents.[16] Local bakers mounted an immediate backlash, however, and the city suspended the enforcement of the assize law before it even commenced. After three months of debate and negotiation, City Council adjusted the sizes of the loaves to suit local preferences—selling for two-and-a-half, five, ten, and twenty cents—and commenced a revised weekly assize of bread in late January 1838.[17]

Over the course of the ensuing two decades, the quickening pace of the Industrial Revolution transformed the economy of our cities, states, and nation. Thanks to the rapid proliferation of railroads, steamboats, and the magnetic telegraph, supply chains grew far beyond local markets and brokers could learn commodities prices across the nation with unprecedented speed. The idea of fixing the local price of wheat flour and the weight of loaf bread by a weekly assize now seemed like a rather quaint anachronism. Free trade on the open market was the new standard. The old-fashioned guiding hand of local government now weighed heavily on both consumers and producers. In this context, the City of Charleston finally and rather quietly abolished the assize of bread in August 1858. Henceforth, bakers determined the weight and price of the loaves the made for sale.[18]

The details surrounding the regulation of bread sales in early Charleston might not be as appetizing as discussions of traditional recipes and tasty ingredients, but they form an important part of any conversation about the foodways of earlier generations. The assize of bread, which was in force in this area for most of the century between 1750 and 1858, dictated the size, quality, and price of the community’s daily bread. Unless they purchased raw flour and baked their own bread, all Charlestonians—rich and poor, enslaved and free—consumed loaves made of uniform ingredients and baked in uniform sizes.

Learning about the foods consumed by our ancestors can help us feel a sense of connection or “communion” with the past. Since the dawn of civilization, breads of various descriptions have formed the “staff of life” for many cultures around the world. The search for details to illuminate these ancient stories embraces many disparate trails. Beyond the grains, the milling, and the baking, the history of our daily bread comes in many assizes.



[1] For more information about the English history of the assize of bread, see Alan S. C. Ross, “The Assize of Bread,” The Economic History Review 9 (1956): 332–42; and James Davis, “Baking for the Common Good: A Reassessment of the Assize of Bread in Medieval England,” The Economic History Review 57 (November 2005): 465–502.

[2] Langdon Cheves, ed., The Shaftesbury Papers (Charleston, S.C.: South Carolina Historical Society, 1897; reprint, Charleston, S.C.: Tempus Publishing, 2000), 139.

[3] South Carolina Gazette, issues of 19–26 April 1739, page 2; 3–12 May 1739, page 4; 19–26 May 1739, page 3.

[4] An imperfect transcription of Act No. 768, “An Act for regulating the Assize of Bread,” ratified on 16 March 1749/50, appears in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 3 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnson, 1838), 715–18, but the complete text and table survive in two contemporary sources: the original engrossed act is held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia, and was published serially in South Carolina Gazette, issues of 2–9 April 1750, pages 3–4; and 9–16 April 1750, page 1. William Simpson, The Practical Justice of the Peace and Parish-Officer, of His Majesty’s Province of South-Carolina (Charleston, S.C.: Robert Wells, 1761), 49–52, explicates the assize of bread law and provides sample text of a warrant to arrest an offending baker.

[5] Act No. 1161, “An Act for reviving and amending several Acts and Ordinances of the General Assembly,” ratified on 12 March 1783, in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 4 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1838), 540–42.

[6] Act No. 1228, “An Act to Explain and Amend An Act Entitled ‘An Act To Incorporate Charleston;’ and to Enlarge the Powers of the City Council,” ratified on 26 March 1784, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 101–2.

[7] The text of “An ordinance for regulating the price and assize of bread,” ratified on 28 April 1785, does not appear in any surviving compilation of city ordinances, but appeared in South Carolina Gazette and General Advertiser, 30 April 1785, page 2, and in several subsequent editions of that newspaper.

[8] The text of “An ordinance for regulating the price and assize of bread, and to repeal an ordinance, passed the 28th day of April, one thousand seven hundred and eight-five, for regulating the prize and assize of bread,” ratified on 11 October 1786, does not appear in any surviving compilation of city ordinances, but appeared in Charleston Morning Post, 4 November 1786, page 3, and in several subsequent editions of that newspaper.

[9] The text of “An ordinance for regulating the price and assize of bread,” ratified on 17 December 1787, appears in Timothy Ford, comp., Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, in the State of South Carolina, Passed Since the Incorporation of the City (Charleston, S.C.: A. Timothy, 1789), 55–56; and in Charleston City Gazette, 19 December 1787, page 2.

[10] The text of “An ordinance for regulating the price and assize of bread,” ratified on 27 September 1792, does not appear in any surviving compilation of city ordinances, but appeared in in City Gazette, 29 September 1792, page 2.

[11] The text of “An ordinance for regulating the price and assize of bread,” ratified on 30 July 1795, appears in Dominick Augustin Hall, comp., Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, In the State of South Carolina, Passed Since the Incorporation of the City (Charleston, S.C.: John MacIver, 1796), 114; and in City Gazette, 3 August 1795, page 2.

[12] The text of “An ordinance for regulating the price and assize of bread,” ratified on 2 August 1813, appears in City Council of Charleston, The Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, South Carolina, Passed Since the First of September, 1807, and to the 12th of November, 1815 (Charleston, S.C.: G. M. Bounetheau and Lewis Bryer, [1815]), 535; and in City Gazette, 5 August 1813, page 2.

[13] See Act No. 2188, “An Act to extend the powers of the Commissioners of Cross Roads on Charleston Neck,” ratified on 18 December 1818, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 6 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1839), 95. The bakers’ pre-1818 subterfuge is described by “Senex” in Charleston Sunday News, 1 October 1882, page 1, “The Old, Old Days.”

[14] See the anonymous essay printed in City Gazette, 16 November 1824, page 2, “Communication.”

[15] The text of “An Ordinance to repeal so much of the Ordinance for regulating the price and assize of Bread, as require loaves to be baked of a certain weight,” ratified on 23 may 1826, appears in City Council of Charleston, A Collection of the Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, from the Third of February, 1824, to the Thirtieth of May, 1826 (Charleston, S.C.: B. R. Gitsinger, 1838), 41; and in the Charleston Mercury, Courier, and Southern Patriot on 24 May 1826.

[16] The text of “An ordinance to repeal an ordinance, entitled ‘An ordinance to repeal so much of the ordinance for regulating the price and assize of bread, as requires loaves to baked of a certain weight’; and to revive and continue in force, an ordinance, entitled ‘An ordinance for regulating the price and assize of bread,’ ratified 2nd of August, 1813,” ratified on 10 October 1837, appears in City Council of Charleston, Ordinances of the City of Charleston, from the 24th May, 1837, to the 18th March, 1840 (Charleston, S.C.: B. R. Getsinger, 1840), 31; and in Charleston Courier, 13 October 1837, page 3.

[17] See “An ordinance to amend an ordinance concerning the assize of bread,” ratified on 30 January 1838, in City Council of Charleston, Ordinances, 1837–1840, 53; and in Courier, 2 February 1838, page 3.

[18] See “An ordinance to repeal ‘An ordinance in relation the assize of bread,’ ratified October 10th, 1837, and for other purposes,” ratified on 3 August 1858, in John Horsey, comp., Ordinances of the City of Charleston from the 14th September, 1854, to the 1st December, 1859 (Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans & Co., 1859), 77.


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